I’ve been playing Dishonored again recently (I obviously recommend it) – a first-person stealth game where you play as Corvo, the empress’s bodyguard who is framed for her murder and the disappearance of the heir to the throne. You then get the choice of going on a bloody rampage or being a sneaky bastard to put things right.
The game was acclaimed largely for its amazing game mechanics (awesome powers like possession and stopping time, stealth vs bloodshed, multiple endings and routes to those endings, etc) – but what has really struck me with my return to the game is just how well the world-building is actually done.
According to the co-creative director of the game, Harvey Smith, the evolution of Dishonored was a slow, but radical one. Complete reversals from one motif and theme to another were common, and often pretty drastic.
“To be honest, it’s not just that no one else knows what you’re doing,” Smith explained, “it’s also we didn’t know. Like, halfway through the project, we were still not using the word ‘steampunk,’ you know? At a certain point, halfway through the project, we still thought the game was set on Earth, instead of this alt-reality Empire of the Isles, this island chain in this quasi-Victorian, alt-Industrial Revolution setting.”
So it sounds like a lot of the world-building was pretty organic for the team behind the game (which is natural) – meaning a lot of thought and planning went into the game and the reasons behind their choices.
But what really stands out in Dishonored’s world-building? And what can we learn from it?
A distinct, but still recognisable theme/concept:
‘Whale-Punk’ is the best way to describe Dishonored. It takes the commonly used steampunk genre and twists it enough to make it feel fresh and distinct, giving viewers a recognisable world that is still new and exciting to explore. This is important, stories need to feel fresh but must still be recognisable to pull people in and be engaged.
A complete, interconnected world:
The game designers really thought about how the world worked together, they didn’t just come up with a single concept and leave it at that, they thought about how certain things would impact the wider world. A good example of this is the plague that is ravaging the city, in other games this would just be an excuse to block off areas of the map or have a few new types of enemies – but Dishonored incorporates it fully by thinking about how it impacts trade, the people, their jobs and faith, even how various factions react to it as it spreads and kills off more of the population. When creating a world, we need to think about the impacts of our choices, can everyone breathe fire or fly – how would that change the way the world works?
Real actions and consequences:
Next up is the impact of Corvo’s choices throughout the game – do you kill every guard you come across, or do you sneak through the shadows and avoid them? Do you brutally stab the man who betrayed you, or do you expose his crimes to the public? The choices you make in Dishonored matter. Every kill makes the rat plague worse, bodies start lining the streets, your allies grow more afraid of you, even the children’s drawings you come across become more dark and twisted. This should be the same in our own stories, as the protagonists make choices, how do these impact the world? What changes should we start to see?
Show, don’t tell:
While a lot of the game’s story is progressed through cutscenes, Dishonored does a great job of showing the world and story through non-traditional means. As you explore the game you can pick-up more information through finding letters, books, hidden areas, writing on the walls, overhearing conversations, etc. Not only that, but you are also given the power to look into the souls of the people around you, hearing their secrets – this can be particularly difficult if you hear that your next victim is really a good man!
But don’t show or tell everything:
A lot of the game and its world is left open to interpretation – who is the mysterious Outsider who gives Corvo his powers, what led certain characters to act the way they did, etc. Remember that not everything needs to be explained, people fill in a lot of blanks themselves with worldbuilding, and sometimes a mystery is what keeps us coming back for more – just don’t leave loose ends!
As a closing thought, Smith made another great comment that I’m taking to heart: “You can spiral into world design forever”. It is so easy to get lost in world-building and trick ourselves into thinking that it is the same as producing real stories, but really its only the first step.
We need to do the work with world-building but recognise when we have reached a limit with planning, then wade into the real work of creating our stories. Doing this, we will organically discover more of the world we are creating and can come back in the editing process to refine and improve on what we have done.